“Whoa, whoa. You better watch what you say about my car. She’s real sensitive.”– Arnie Cunningham in Stephen King’s Christine
“She comes in sixteen colours, she’ll suck your money dry, gives shitty mileage but come on lets get inside.”– The Blue Tones, ‘Autophilia’
The first and only time I sat in the driver’s seat of a car was when I was nine years old: my dad had gone into a supermarket, leaving me alone in the parked motor. Being a petulant little shit, I decided to play with the dashboard and pretend to be my dad for a while. “Hey, where’s your indicator, mate!?”
Among other things–jerking the steering wheel this way and that, rattling the gear stick, honking the horn–I had compressed the accelerator pedal a good number of times. This, it seems, flooded the fuel tank, leaving us stranded like castaways in Tesco’s car park. It had been a mildly fun fifteen minutes, but the subsequent two-week grounding without pocket money may have had something to do with my ongoing dislike of cars.
To say that my dislike of cars stems from a single childhood association isn’t really true. I dislike them on rational and aesthetic levels too. They’re smelly, noisy, dangerous, expensive, complicated, boring and are responsible for many societal ills.
Driving to work, most people will agree, is no inconsiderable source of stress. The traffic is a nightmare in both directions because everyone starts and finishes work at the same time. What would be a twenty-minute pootle under other circumstances takes an hour. That’s why they call it “rush hour” in spite of the fact that it lasts at least two hours and that the “rushing” really just involves “sitting.” You shout and swear and honk the horn–that most inarticulate cry of frustration–at other drivers who, after all, only have the same problem as you do. Someone’s caused an accident up ahead and everything’s ground to a halt. Life-halting fumes drift in through the ventilation system. Everything on the radio is rubbish. You are slowly dying. This is your life! Your time on Earth!
There are so many benefits to walking instead of driving. The only downside to an urban stroll is the exposure to the noise and emissions caused by cars. Even in parks, the roar of the traffic can still be heard.
I like to engage with people: to watch them or talk to them or to just be around them. You can’t very well do either if you’re driving around in your own private little bubble. You can, however, do it on a bus or a train. You might meet someone who’ll change your life. Otherwise, it’s just nice to be amongst the thrum of other human beings instead of alone in a car that smells of naff upholstery and chemicalicious air-freshener.
Reading a short story or an essay or the lighter pages of a newspaper on public transport is a wonderful idle pleasure. If you read when you drive, you get arrested or dead. Moreover, who wants to have to concentrate so intently just to get somewhere? On a train, you can relax and glide along the tracks. On foot, you can take your time and explore the nitty-gritty of your city or town. If you cast a glance upwards, you’ll see statues and turrets missed by anyone with the misfortune to be imprisoned in a car. Be a flaneur; imagine yourself as a tireless paladin on an epic à pied adventure (“for God and for valour, he strode through the land”).
Walking instead of driving introduces an element of exercise into your life. Walk everywhere, spend less time in the gym. Feel less guilty about eating cake. Gym membership is another expensive overhead: the cost of shoe leather, meanwhile, is negligible. Walking, running and cycling are good for you. Driving a car is lazy, inefficient and good for no one.
Why be responsible for another stinking heap of metal on the road when you can disappear–treading lightly–into the city on foot? Why contribute to congestion problems and pollute the already acrid air? Why be responsible for consuming our rapidly-diminishing oil reserves so that America has to go to war again? As a pedestrian, you’ll never have to patronise (or be patronised by) a Kwik Fit or pay out a hard-won kajillion for something called a flange compactor. You’ll never have to change a tire. You’ll never contribute to childhood asthma.
Cars are expensive. In addition to the cost of petrol and maintenance and running it through the car wash every so often, you’ve got insurance and road tax and, if you live in the wrong place, you’ve got congestion fees and toll booths to pay as well. And then there’s your parking permit or a meter to feed or expensive parking tickets when you forget to do so. None of this is even to mention the cost of buying the car in the first place, or that of the real estate it takes up, and of the various stresses it imposes on you. Walk more, work less.
Have you ever tried to have sex in a car? It’s supposed to be exciting or something–a romantic hangover of the days when American teens would park their dad’s cars at Inspiration Point–but it makes me think of the Harlan Ellison story in which the protagonists are trapped in the unnatural belly of a giant robot. The upholstery has a distracting 1982 smell and there’s always the fear that you might fall backwards and wind up impaled on the gear stick.
I’ve never needed a car. Ever. And I can’t ever envision a situation where I might need one. They’re just another marketable commodity in place of an original simple pleasure; and yet another purchasable replacement for personality. They are products of anxiety: a car supposedly brings security and seclusion, but walking and cycling and taking public transport bring freedom and inclusion.
I could go on, but we’d be here all day. So I’ll just say that the final argument against cars is encapsulated in two words: “Jeremy” and “Clarkson.” If you’re the sort of person who thinks Jeremy Clarkson is “okay really”, even though he fetishises cars and has the wit of a carburettor, please send your copy of New Escapologist back to me and apply for a full refund. I can’t abide Clarksonites reading our magazine. [2019 update: This offer has now expired!]
Lose the car. Rediscover walking. Honestly, you’ll not regret it.
This short essay was written in 2010 by Robert Wringham and originally published in New Escapologist Issue Three. It was added to the New Escapologist online archive thanks to funders via our Patreon page. The original piece had no accompanying artwork; the image of crushed cars used here was scraped from the license-free Interwebs.
It is easy to see the beginnings of things and harder to see the ends. — Joan Didion
Listen. I might have discovered a previously-unobserved source of human misery. If we can work out how to escape this thing, we can probably all be a lot happier.
We might even be happier at work and not want to escape it if only we could escape this problem. We could be happier at school, happier in our own heads and, yes, happier on the toilet.
I know it sounds grandiose to go claiming a new discovery and all, but describing sources of misery–revealing them for what they are–and working out how to escape them is sort of my job now. And I’m digging deep.
So what is this newly-discovered reservoir of despair? Pop-Tarts? Well, that’s a good guess, madam, but no; the misery inflicted by their kind is already a matter of record. What I want to talk about today is:
a mass failure to begin with the end in mind.
a tendency to confuse ends with means.
Wait! Wait! It know it sounds oblique and may not be as actionable an improvement as, say, escape from social media, but you’ve just got to hear me out. Trust me, I have a headful (it’s a word) of thoughts and some strong anecdotal evidence!
The idea of “starting with the end in mind” comes, I’m embarrassed to say, from a self-help book I’ve not read properly on grounds of not wanting to rot my mind any further than it’s already been rotted by such things. Self-help books are like the sun: sources of energy that that should never be looked at directly.
But it’s rather good. I know “begin with the end in mind” sounds platitudinous like “start as you mean to go on” or something, but it’s really not so vacuous and the further I travel in time from that book, the more and more its significance occurs to me.
It’s about having an actual end point–a finished product and/or situation–in mind before you start doing something. It’s also about not confusing means with ends: going to work, for example, is a means (i.e. the mechanism required to make money to live on and also to contribute to some sort of a product or service) that is too often seen as an ends (“I am, finally and inherently, a proctologist. My arrival in the world of proctology is a final result. Just as I’m a husband and a flyfisher and a worshipper of Cthulu, I’m a proctologist.”).
We fail to begin with the end in mind sometimes as individuals (one might join a gym with a general hunch that it’s healthy and that it sounds good when you say “so I’ve joined a gym”) but, more significantly, we fail to begin with the end in mind as societies too and the result is that individual people are plopped into situations and environments without knowing what’s really going on.
Life is confusing and frightening, right? Well, I think a big part of that is that we’re too often led into tight quarters where the end has not been explained to us. The end is too often poorly defined in the minds of those telling us what to do too: the “end,” often, might not even exist. When we go to work, we don’t know what The Company is really in service of and we don’t know what that thing it’s in service of might itself be in service of higher up the totem pole of society: all we can do it turn up, complete the tasks assigned to us, and take home the paycheque. All we’re left with is means.
Many of the hopeless jobs I’ve been pressed into over the years probably felt hopeless to me because I didn’t know what they were for. And on those rare occasions I did have a sense of what they might be for, they were usually so far into the suburbs of anything worthwhile, that the handing in of Mr. Notice wasn’t far behind.
Someone of my father’s generation might say that the ultimate purpose of a job is besides the point and that you should just be happy to be working and be getting paid for it. Just turn up, punch the clock, do the work, get out. Simple. But that’s because he worked in secondary industry with a clear and tangible purpose at all times; he didn’t know boredom–true, soul-rusting boredom–in the way that we do. It’s hard to sit on a chair, watching a clock tick down, or faffing with Excel without being told what this is all for. I mean, even if the Prime Minister just went on TV to say, “Look, almost all of your jobs are actually pointless. But we’re morally unprepared to pay you to stay at home, so we’ve had to invent busywork for you. Sorry about that. But, just to be clear, your sitting on that ergonomic swivel chair is the whole end as well a means.” At least that would be something.
It drove me nuts, this sense of alienation. I have a natural impulse to visualise the end result of things. I can’t help it. You’re probably the same. If I’m writing a chapter for a book, for example, I need to know in my gut how it relates to the other chapters, how it fits into the broader scheme of the book, and how that book slots into the world library. I can’t help but imagine what sort of cover the publisher will give to the book and how attractive or ugly it’s likely to look or on people’s nightstands. That’s normal, isn’t it? Does a parent-to-be not preemptively picture the face of their wee one? It’s a natural impulse surely, not just another case of me being a delicate petal.
If your job was to report to a factory and to drill equally-spaced holes into six-inch lengths of metal tubing and then to pass it down to the next person, you’d probably be told at some point that you’re making flutes. You might then reasonably suppose that said flutes go off to market where they make (a) money for your employer and (b) music for ears and that (b) music if not (a) money is an inherent good and therefore an end. I suppose this job, being repetitive, would get boring after a while but at least you’d know what the heck was going on, just what all of your hole-drilling was in aid of.
Some white-collar workplaces have “mission statements.” Maybe there was one tacked up on a notice board or laminated and Blu-Tacked to a load-bearing pillar in your last office. Those mission statements are supposed to dovetail elegantly with everyone’s job descriptions so that everyone knows just how they contribute to the organisation’s agenda and how their duties relate to everyone else’s duties and how everyone–despite our varying degrees of happiness, busyness, and reluctance to be there–is actually on the same page and serving the same Grand Vision. It seldom works like that though does it? In the private sector, missions mutate to keep up with market forces (and are bogus to begin with since the mission of any company is to “make money” for a boss or for shareholders, any talk of “a passion for jell-o” or “bringing twiglets to the world” being obvious nonsense). In the public sector, mission statements tend to be so willfully obfuscating and are rendered in such twisted perversions of language that nobody can relate to them much less understand the bloody things. The effect of all this is that people just have to turn up, perform the tasks they’ve been told to perform, and not to trouble themselves over what it’s all for, what Great Machine they’re helping to drive into the future.
This hunger for meaning–a need for basic orientation–was rarely met in any of my white-collar jobs and it was maddening. You’d be welcomed into the office on Day 1, given directions on your daily activities over the course of perhaps a week, but a wider sense of what all of this was in aid of was either assumed or explained exclusively through an HR-prepared induction pack of contractual waffle and out-of-date “organograms.” It was a bit like being stuck in the trunk of a moving car with a hood over your head and being asked, for reasons unknown to you, to solve a Rubik’s cube. It’s not impossible, it’s just tedious and pointlessly mysterious.
I was thinking about all this recently and it occurred to me that a sense of not really knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing–a feeling of being lost at sea when you’re dutifully standing right where the world has told you to be–is probably the source of untold unhappiness at work.
At school–another time in life when perfectly happy and intelligent people are gaslit into worrying we might be misanthropes or stupid–we are seldom told what the lessons are about: why we’re being told these things, what they have to do with us. A general understanding may have been instilled in us about the importance of “passing maths” so that we can graduate high school and move on to the next artificially-maintained stage of life and on and on and on, but it all seems so absurd and irrelevant when you’re sitting there at a desk, being told about Ox-Bow Lakes.
In Geography–a subject I generally liked–we had a teacher who was good at getting us through exams. His trick was to teach “facts” by rote. It worked. We all passed Geography with flying colours. By “facts” he really meant “details.” A geography exam could not be blagged, he said, on general views or ideas about the world. You had to be able to write “the Cotswolds” or “1978” or “the Maasai Mara.” Points were awarded for these details. He gave us all sorts of wacky mnemonic techniques and bashed these facts into our heads until we could recite them automatically without even switching on the conscious parts of our brains. Now I think about it, it must have looked quite eerie from his perspective and rather like something from Children of the Corn. “Ox-Bow Lake, sir,” we’d all say in chorus, “Jurassic limestone, sir.”
I did not find this strategy objectionable at the time because learning facts divorced of context was at least easy and it meant I could get back to making out with my girlfriend or reading comics or whatever it was. And yet now, as an adult, I find myself wondering what an “Ox-Bow Lake” might actually be. I know they’re a kind of lake. I can draw one from above. I can even tell you about how it is formed and how it relates to “meanders,” to “eutrophication,” and to “natural erosion.” But I don’t know what much of that really means or where one one of these fabled Ox-Bow Lakes might be. Are they in England somewhere? Are they in Africa? Mars? To this day, I have no understanding–intellectually or viscerally–of what, really, an Ox-Bow Lake is. I can just parrot some words I learned by rote.
Surely, I wonder now, there must be better ways of teaching kids. Surely no marker of exams ever thought “Oh yes, this youngster really understands the essence of the Ox-Bow Lake.” It’s all so “phoney,” as Holden Caulfield–whom we did not study in English class–would undoubtedly say.
What I’m saying here is that these geography facts and so much else at school were endured in isolation with no end in mind: no reasonable context was given for any of it. The lessons started at the wrong end of things: before teaching this sort of deeply specialised nitty-gritty, shouldn’t we be told something general about life (like, where we are now, historically-speaking, and on which operating systems, geopolitically-speaking, do our lives run) and then, should we graduate to such ludicrously granular specialities as needing to know about the various types of freshwater lake and their formation, about how it all relates to us and our place in the world? Just like “orientation” in a job, how about some orientation from schools on the relevant basics of present-tense Life on Earth?
(Curious to know if there’s a school of thought on this, perhaps called “contextual learning,” I looked it up. It turns out there is but despite the general theory being noble–“teachers […] present information in such a way that students are able to construct meaning based on their own experiences”–the rest of it is really a lot of softy twaddle and involves hands-on “experiences” instead of the noble Aristotelian tradition of classroom- and book-learning, which is a lot of pedagogic wisdom to throw in the bin. You went too radical, Contextual Learning!)
So a kid is not schooled “with the end in mind,” nor is end of schooling kept in mind at all, only the means (which consists, if memory serves, of getting the regulation backpacks and calculators, sitting still, respecting your teachers, not chewing gum, and doing homework on time — urgh). If the end of school is to prepare students for life in a practical way, it’s obviously not fit for purpose. If the end of schooling is to teach an understanding of the world, it’s not doing that either. But I don’t really know what the end of school is because it was never explained. It’s just something everyone had to do.
Imagine if the Prime Minister came on TV again to say “I’ve been talking to the Secretary of Education and, essentially, we just want to keep young people off the streets, alright? So sit tight, grow up, and then you can do what you like.” Again, at least it would be something.
Politics meanwhile is a veritable haven of failing to start with the end in mind and getting wound up in means. Everyone’s got their tribe and nobody wants to ask what the end of that tribe really is. Your first encounter with politics probably involved a political party broadly aligned to an ideology or–more likely–your witnessing a reaction to a party-political statement by someone whose opinion you valued at the time. You’ll have heard your dad complaining about Reds or your mum complaining about Blues and it’s enough to get you started on a lifetime of political opinion-having.
One needs to step back and ask what it’s all for. In the United Kingdom, where I live (and will continue to live until my actual country of residence, Scotland, votes to leave the UK in favour of Europe in a couple of years) the Conservative Party aren’t even slightly interested in what it’s all for. They aren’t so much interested in running a country as holding onto power (and therefore money and limelight and future consultancy or public speaking opportunities).
A Labour Party campaigner I used to follow on social media before I quit had two passions in life: campaigning for a Socialist Labour Party and getting them into power; and what she called “self-destruction.” She’d routinely post pictures of evidence of scarring or of drinking and smoking too much. It didn’t look like she was seeking help or anything: it was more a case of “Self-Harm Pride” or something. I swear I wasn’t being judgmental–go ahead and self-destroy if that’s what you’re into–but I wondered if the Socialism didn’t conflict with the self-destruction. I was too shy to ask.
I don’t look at social media any more, but I asked a young Socialist in the pub what he thought about this. “Isn’t destroying yourself just doing the Tories’ job for them?” I suggested. “If the Tories want to make their cronies rich through privatisation and to punish the poor by inflicting austerity measures and dismantling the welfare state, isn’t it just helping them along to abbreviate your own life and compromise your own wellbeing?”
“Maybe,” he said, “but looking after yourself is what a Libertarian would say.”
He could be right, I suppose. Whenever I do that political compass thing, my position is firmly in the Libertarian left. But it makes me wonder what the point of Socialism could possibly be if it’s not to raise the quality of life of individual people. Even Jeremy Corbyn (while discussing automation in 2018) has referred to “a chance to raise living standards and give people more control of their own lives.” Because that’s the point. It’s not about righteous fighting (which is a means, not and end) while willingly suffering (even inflicting) hardship and rejecting the good life on class grounds. What’s the point of that? Self-destruction isn’t “solidarity;” in damaging yourself–whether actively like the activist I’m talking about or passively through self-neglect–you’re harming a member of the crowd you’re trying to save. You’ve confused means with an end.
At work, at school, and in politics it would be good if the actual “end” could be kept in mind. Performing actions without understanding the end is, I’m increasingly convinced, the origin (even the epicentre!) of alienation and therefore the font of misery. We probably wouldn’t want to escape those institutions so badly or to engage with them so half-heatedly if someone would just take the time to explain what’s going on, how everything fits together in the world, and what the “end” of everything really is. This is more and more important the higher one goes in thinking about society: work, school, and politics are but elements of a world. What about the social world at large. How do we want to live? To trot out a hoary old Wildean wit-nugget:
a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.
And that’s my point. Utopia–whether we’re talking personal and individualist or social and wide-reaching–is an end. And without that end in mind, any project you undertake is doomed. So. Begin with the end in mind. Build it into the foundations, my tolerant and long-reading friend, bake it into the brownie while the brownie’s still still a dough, start with the end and work, like a writer of detective novels, backwards from there. Don’t mistake means for ends. Don’t sweat the small stuff: if you want to run a project or plot any course of action, or if you want to know how to spend your days: START BIG.
This essay began life as one possible introduction to a book called The Good Life for Wage Slaves before being set to one side and repurposed for an online readership. If you liked the essay, please consider buying the book.
Another day, another boring BBC article about work-life balance. And yet it’s interesting that such a mainstream media item would question (gently) the conventional idea of success. It is described (tentatively) in the article as a trap.
There are [sic] “an endless amount [sic] of things you could be doing to make yourself look amazing,” [says the CEO]. “There’s big pressure to do that. You have founders [of companies] trying to achieve success on multiple fronts, whether it’s media attention, revenue growth, etc., and that’s where the trap sets in.”
There’s an “outside portrayal of founder life as this amazing journey that you have to make look so exciting and so high growth all the time,” says Moore. “I think there’s just an inevitable crash for a lot of people when they feel they’re not living their real life.”
As we’ve said many times at New Escapologist, you need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Where are your actions taking you? What are they really giving to (and taking from) the world? When do you imagine you’ll start having fun? And what is the point of all this “success” anyway? Will it really make you feel good or is it just a rather base (and impossible to ever achieve) defence reflex to gaslight the entire planet?
Post Scriptum! For the kind of insight not offered by copy-writing dullards hired by mainstream Web media, why not join New Escapologist on Patreon to access an expanding of amusing, interesting Escapological essays?
Last year, somewhere in Austria, I decided to drop out of university in my very first class. We can say actually in the first fifteen minutes. I was 18, took my backpack, got out of the building and said “Goodbye to all that!”
I worked a bit after leaving university and saved money. I am now in a small town somewhere in the world, educating myself, reading Plutarch, and drinking chocolate in the afternoon, hoping to write soon.
I live simply and I am very young and inexperienced, but Thoreau taught me to try the experiment of living to learn to live.
In today’s Guardian:
An influential conservative thinktank – fronted by the former work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith – has proposed the state pension age should rise to 75 over the next 16 years. If the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) had its way, the retirement age would go up to 70 just nine years from now, as the change is phased in.
This has been on the cards for a while, hasn’t it? Four million women have already been asked to wait an additional six years for their promised pensions. They want us to work until we die. No gold watch! No respite!
“Well, 75 isn’t quite the end of life,” one might say. Well, maybe that’s true for some but:
In Glasgow, boys born between 2015 and 2017 have a life expectancy of just 73.3 years – meaning under this plan, many would never reach pensionable age.
The wealthy and powerful Right don’t want us to ever rest.
And it’s the way they put it too. That the unwilling sweat of their citizens will “boost the economy” as if that were’t tyrannical lunacy while also adopting the tone of all this doing the work-knackered elderly a favour:
The CSJ’s idea of raising the pension age further received glowing coverage in sections of the rightwing press, with the Telegraph marvelling how it would “boost the economy” by £182bn and stave off the “escalating cost” of state pensions. As Duncan Smith tweeted this week: “Removing barriers for older people to working [sic] longer has the potential to improve health and wellbeing, increase retirement savings and ensure the full functioning of public services for all.”
It really does feel like like we’re at an extreme crossroads now, at which we need to choose between expanding the leisure franchise or enslaving everyone forever.
Escapologists may not be personally motivated by a state retirement as such, what with it requiring forty years of work to reach and all, but it would be nice to live in a world where Escapology (a rare and individualist act) were’t the only way to be free from drudgery.
It’s a dystopian vision of life, in which capitalism tells workers who have already grafted for 40 years that working a five-day week through their 70s is in fact the path to a healthy body and society.
Thanks to reader Antonia for drawing our attention to this BBC article. It’s a bit of a fence-sitter as articles go, suggesting that a shorter work week could be a “double-edged sword,” in terms of its social effects; but it’s fair to acknowledge, I suppose, that some people feel a bit lost without work and the article at least offers some real-world examples of how people who can’t sit still might use the extra time.
The scattered shorter-week trials that have been conducted suggest that workers with longer weekends – but whose pay stayed the same – used their extra time for a mix of activities. For a New Zealand financial services firm that last year gave employees the option of a four-day working week, this included more employee time spent golfing, watching Netflix, studying and spending time with family. For a UK PR firm that also instituted a four-day week, one young employee started spending her extra time volunteering with elderly people.
I must say that I find all this “what would I do with my time?” talk slightly bewildering. If we’re including relatively default activities such as “watching Netflix” and “spending time with family” as suggestions, I’m not sure we have much to worry about. One doesn’t need a particularly fertile imagination or very much social privilege to come up with the idea of filling an extra day with such activities. Washing? Should that be included as a recommendation? Eating lunch? Having a poo-poo? A wee-wee? Does all of this need to be explained to people as something to do when you’re not being cajoled into a workplace?
This article isn’t even talking about the total escape from the drudgery of work, remember, but about a reduced (i.e. four-day) working week. The idea that people will go off the rails (it is often suggested that people could fall into crime and drug abuse without good old Work to provide a structure for the day) has never sounded genuine.
As much as anything, we already have evenings and weekends. I’m aware that a minority of workers go a little crazy in terms of Saturday night revelry, but they don’t go insane as soon as the whistle blows and start hot-wiring cars and slinging burning bins through shop windows, do they?
You can just imagine Puritanical ministers and industrialists invested in a docile workforce having this kind of reservation when the idea of a weekend was first proposed. “Two days per week of not working? Whatever will they do to fill the time? Whatever it is, it’s sure to be immoral! Work, Work, Work! That’s the only way to keep society together. Work and the Holy Bible!”
See also: pensioners. The proven, everyday, humdrum fact of the matter is that few people willingly work or fall into criminal behaviour once they’re given a modest stipend to live on. They just tend to potter about and play with grandchildren, don’t they? Society doesn’t fall into chaos when people stop working: I might be wrong but there seem to be remarkably few gangster grannies to suggest otherwise.
My time was running out as quickly as sand through a glass. Back in the real world–the nontravel world–I was caught up in this odd arrangement whereby I agreed to spend all day doing things that were unbearably dull and monotonous for which I was compensated financially, much in the manner of a sea lion being rewarded with a halibut.
This is from Hokkaido Highway Blues by Canadian humorist Will Ferguson. It’s a superb book if you’re interested in Japan and great if you’re into long-term travel more generally. Ferguson hitch-hiked his way up Japan from southernmost Cape Sata to northerly Rishiri Island, following the cherry blossoms as they erupt across the country.
How much more Escapological–how much more motile–could you be? For a time, anyway.
Ferguson worked as an English language teacher in a Japanese high school before undertaking his journey. He saved up some money and took a period of leave with which to enjoy a micro-escape and to complete his adventure. There’s a sense throughout the book of playing hooky, of avoiding responsibility, of being on the lam, and–because of his limited funds and his intention to go back to work at the end of the adventure–of time running out.
If you’ve ever taken a micro-escape/mini-retirement (perhaps you’re on one now?) you’ll be familiar with this sensation: of ticking-clock countdown dread, of agoraphobic near-total liberty, of damn-it-all-to-hell Selma and Louise cliff-edge exhilaration. Beats sitting at a desk.
Give it a read. Ferguson has good insights into Japan and travel more generally, and he’s good company at the same time: a funny fellow and a devil-may-care fellow traveller.
A few years ago, I attended a conference just outside Glasgow. It was a waste of time and energy even within the framework of my already-a-waste-of-time job, but attendance was mandatory and that was that. It was precisely the sort of thing that would push me from a state of generalised frustration and into a bleak, chastised, depression-adjacent funk.
As I walked deliberately slowly to the conference centre from the train station, weighed down with a laptop bag of stupid paperwork, I crossed the Forth and Clyde Canal. I looked down from the bridge at the still water, and thought “one day, I’ll walk through this junction again, on my own terms and trouble-free.” I knew that my state of consciousness would be completely different to the one that was currently currently me to grind my teeth. It was such a certainty that I could practically see my future self walking contentedly along the towpath.
I looked up at the bridge and imagined my past self and sent the telepathic message back through time that things would be okay.
And then I climbed up onto the bridge and took a photograph for a reminder. This spot can now be called Future Echo junction. (Thankfully I did not also see my bloated corpse floating face-down in the canal.)